Gary Crusader’s Indiana Public Records-FOIA request for public documents on school’s conditions denied
By Erick Johnson
State officials are refusing to release emails that include conversations or maintenance information after Gary’s storied Roosevelt College and Career Academy building was shuttered in February.
Officials have been accused of avoiding questions, presenting undocumented information and shunning transparency to close Roosevelt’s historic building. Their latest move may confirm suspicions that the state-controlled Gary Community School Corporation has something to hide.
Nearly one month ago, in an email to the Crusader, Michael Tolbert, an attorney for the GCSC, denied a request the newspaper made under the Indiana Public Records and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as questions and concerns about the state’s handling of Roosevelt deepened among alumni.
Last month, at a community meeting held by state officials residents were not allowed to ask questions about the $10 million needed to repair and reopen Roosevelt. A slide presentation was shown, but no official documents or information was distributed to show what the state has done in the last six months after burst pipes forced the closure of Roosevelt, sending students to a temporary home at the Gary Area Career Center.
With little to no transparency from the state-controlled Gary Community School Corporation, on July 25, the Crusader filed an Indiana Public Records-FOIA Request, seeking the emails of Gary Emergency Manager Peter Morikis and GCSC Deputy Superintendent Nakia Douglas, who hung up twice on this Crusader reporter after she was asked why questions emailed to her had gone unanswered.
Tolbert promised twice a response would be given to the Crusader, but finally responded to a detailed follow-up letter from the newspaper on July 23. In his written response to the Crusader request, Tolbert wrote, “This is not a valid request as it is overly broad, unduly burdensome and potentially seeks information prohibited by the Public Records Act, which includes, but are not limited to, the disclosure of intra-agency or interagency advisory or deliberative materials that express opinions and are used for decision making.”
Included in Tolbert’s initial response was a document from the GCSC that listed six vendors who the district said it paid a total of $68,295. That number was changed to $50,690 on a second email, that unlike the first, included invoices showing maintenance work on Roosevelt from as early as February 1 to as late as June 15, 2019.
In his second response, Tolbert sent another document. It was an update on Roosevelt’s condition and listed seven key points on what was done. The document was dated April 4, but a meeting with Roosevelt alumni that was scheduled April 2 was cancelled without explanation.
None of these documents were presented or revealed to nearly 100 residents attending the community meeting on July 16. Many were Roosevelt alumni who, despite the lack of documents, believed the high initial estimates given by Eric Parish, executive vice president of Education Excellence Group of MGT Consulting—a contractor responsible for helping EdisonLearning academically turn around Roosevelt.
Nothing on MGT’s website lists the company’s experience in building assessment or infrastructure work. No professional assessor or anyone from the six firms spoke or was available to offer a professional assessment about the building’s physical condition or its repair costs.
Morikis—the emergency manager—was at the community meeting, but did not speak. Neither did Courtney Schaafsma, the executive director at the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board, who sat silently throughout the meeting.
Schaafsma was one of several people who, a week prior to the July 16 meeting, was led on a tour of Roosevelt that was videotaped and later shown at the meeting. Incoming Mayor Jerome Prince and State Rep. Vernon Smith were also on the tour, which included visits to the building’s boiler and several rooms where many ceiling panels were missing. While officials say asbestos-laden tiles and health remain a concern among officials, no one in the video tour is seen wearing a safety mask or a hard hat.
“We did everything possible we could to keep students at the home campus, but at the end of day, it wasn’t safe to keep students there,” said Marshall Emerson, regional general manager of EdisonLearning, at the July 16 meeting. Emerson’s company has made at least $10 million under two contracts with the state to turn Roosevelt around academically. At the meeting, Emerson aimed to educate the public about his company’s role at Roosevelt, but neither he or Parish presented actual copies of EdisonLearning’s contract or told residents how it could be accessed online.
Emerson said he put in $1.5 million of his company’s money for repairs and added about $4 million in grants for electrical and security systems, but no documents to back up these claims were ever presented.
“I don’t care what they say or what they present, but [sic] their actions speak louder than their words,” said David Bullock. “They (Morikis and school officials) never said they would close the building, but that’s what they’re doing. I’d rather have them just say it and be upfront rather than stringing us along.”
Other questions remain. Last March, Roosevelt alumni questioned state officials about $500,000 the GCSC received to repair Gary’s heating system. This wasn’t mentioned at the meeting and no update on its usage has ever been made public. Since questions were not allowed at the July 16 meeting, no one asked about it.
In an article in the Crusader last March, an alum stated that only one of two boilers was operating in the portion of the building where classes were being held. There were concerns that the $500,000 was being used on other schools.
Another concern is why the state-controlled GCSC canceled several community meetings before holding one on July 16 after the Crusader story called them out as Roosevelt’s vacant building continued to deteriorate.
The next meeting on the building’s future is on August 13 at 6 p.m. in the Gary Area Career Center. With many questions still unanswered and Morikis and Douglas not talking, the Crusader sought their emails to shed light on the situation. Emails are perhaps the most reliable source of information that is accurate.
Emails from government employees are public documents that, under most circumstances, can be viewed by the public. It is not uncommon for government officials to deny such FOIA requests, but news organizations across the country have filed lawsuits to force officials to release public documents.
The Crusader is weighing options in moving forward with this story.